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Signs and Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

written by: Emma Lloyd • edited by: Leigh A. Zaykoski • updated: 6/16/2010

Most thyroid cancers can be treated and cured as long as they are diagnosed early and accurately. Leaning about the symptoms of thyroid cancer can help with obtaining an early diagnosis.

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    The thyroid is a small gland located at the front of the neck. This is an endocrine gland, which simply means it produces hormones. Thyroid hormones are involved in regulating metabolism, body temperature, and blood calcium levels.

    There are several types of thyroid cancer, the most common of which are papillary adenocarcinoma and follicular adenocarcinoma. Other types include medullary adenocarcinoma, anaplastic thyroid cancer, thyroid lymphoma, and thyroid sarcoma.The various types can differ somewhat in their symptoms, because they can affect the thyroid in different ways. For example, thyroid cancer can sometimes affect the vocal cords or trachea, but this does not occur in all cases.

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    Symptoms of Thyroid Cancer

    Someone who has undiagnosed thyroid cancer—that is, someone who begins to notice unusual symptoms without knowing what they mean—might experience any combination of the following list of symptoms. The specific pattern of symptoms a given person will experience depends on the type of thyroid cancer he or she has.

    Signs and symptoms of thyroid cancer can include:

    • Neck swelling or development of a lump in the neck is generally the first sign of thyroid cancer. The swelling is called a thyroid nodule. Most thyroid nodules are benign, but in about 10% of cases they are malignant.
    • Thyroid gland enlargement can occur in conjunction with nodule development, but can also occur by itself.
    • Persistent throat or neck pain that is present without an identifiable injury having occurred might be a sign of thyroid cancer.
    • Hoarseness of the voice, or other voice changes, can indicate that a thyroid tumor is pressing on the vocal cords. In rare cases it might indicate that the thyroid cancer has spread to the vocal cords.
    • Persistent cough and difficulty swallowing can occur if a thyroid tumor is obstructing or pressing on the throat or trachea. Alternatively it might mean the cancer has spread from the thyroid.

    All of these symptoms can occur as a result of thyroid cancer, but in most cases they are the result of a non-malignant condition. Even so, it is important to recognize the signs when they occur, and seek medical attention as a precautionary measure. Most types of thyroid cancer can be treated very effectively as long as they are diagnosed early.

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    Thyroid cancer diagnosis can include a variety of medical tests to confirm the cause of symptoms. These tests might include one or more of the following:

    • Blood tests for thyroid hormone levels
    • Biopsy of the thyroid gland to check for the presence of cancer cells
    • Ultrasound or other medical imaging scan of the thyroid gland
    • Laryngoscopy to determine the cause of vocal cord problems
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    American Cancer Society: What is Thyroid Cancer?

    Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center: Thyroid Cancer Overview

    National Institute of Health MedlinePlus: Thyroid Cancer

    Pramod K Sharma, MD, for eMedicine: Thyroid Cancer